It wasn’t until I had climbed partway up a nearby hill that I realized my mistake. When we’d arrived at the camp after a journey by bus across trackless lava fields, I had immediately noticed the high cliff of black, broken rock and deep green moss. You couldn’t miss it as it towered over the camp just beyond the hot springs in which visitors luxuriated. A narrow path wound its way up the 70 feet or so of rock into what I’d taken to be nothing more than shattered slopes leading up into the southern highlands.
I figured the sharp face of its outer wall was due to erosion — it looked out onto a broad river basin that probably sees a good deal of flooding during the late spring thaw, and I assumed this had eroded away the rock. Perhaps in some distant age, the basin had contained a lake or a raging river. I was fascinated by the cliff but didn’t take it to be anything more special than the other alien features that marked out my first taste of the Icelandic wilderness.
I was in a place unlike anywhere I’d seen before.
How mistaken I was! As soon as I’d climbed the nearby hill and enjoyed a higher vantage, I discovered that what I took to be a cliff face was actually the end of vast and ancient lava flow. I could see its black features against the khaki and green landscape snaking for miles and miles up and over hills and through deep valleys. Back in the 15th century, my tent would have been set at the very edge of a molten inferno. What’s more, I spied another lava flow — we’d actually driven through it on the way to camp — that had come within a mile or so of merging with the other.
You may laugh, but until that moment I’d pictured lava flows as knee- or possibly neck-deep — not 50 to 80 feet deep. I can only begin to imagine the heat that molten rock of such thickness must produce. I also hadn’t realised what a misnomer “flow” is in the case of lava. I could see by the way it snaked up steep slopes that the “flow” had pushed itself through the landscape; new emissions must have had sufficient density to push earlier outflows forward even over mountains. That particular flow only came to rest in a broad river basin, forever cutting one part of it off. Here was geological activity in fast forward. The many vents I’d pass over the next couple of days were reminders that such activity isn’t a thing of the past.
The main culprit for all this activity is Hekla volcano, which I occasionally glimpsed during my southward journey on the famous Laugavegur Trail in August. Hekla was supposedly known during the Middle Ages as the “gateway to Hell,” and the relics of its lava flows certainly explain why. It has erupted regularly over the centuries, periodically devastating parts of Iceland and even affecting the climate of Europe. It stands northwest of the now more famous Eyjafjallajökull volcano that wreaked so much havoc on air travel in 2009.
What the Vikings who settled Iceland must have thought when they first experienced one of its eruptions! A 12th-century treatise on miracles suggests that people elsewhere knew it to dwarf Etna and supposedly a later account took the hiss of volcanic bombs to be the sound of souls flocking towards Hell. It was even said to be the home of Judas. We may soon get to see its destructive potential again as Hekla is due for another eruption.
I’d never before been in a landscape so scarred by destruction. What struck me even more is that the same landscape stands ready to be blasted by heat and ash again. Much that I saw around me as I walked may be utterly annihilated in the near future — undoubtedly during one of Hekla’s many eruptions forecast for the next millennia. There’s no escaping the doom it presents to everything in its immediate vicinity.
As I climbed with the other walkers, I reached a point where I could see over much of the highlands. Later I learned that I was in fact standing in the midst of a massive caldera, seething with trapped energy. That was an uncanny feeling. Had I been incredibly unlucky, I could have vanished in the twinkling of an eye as all turned to fire and ash. I would have experienced (in the nanosecond before I was vaporised) something like the medieval view of the end.
Cheering thought, that.
I have been blessed never to have been confronted with destruction. I suppose the closest I’ve come to it in natural terms are my fleeting experiences of powerful tropical systems — though miraculously for someone who has spent almost 40 years in the southeastern United States, I’ve never experienced a full hurricane. Others are not so fortunate, as we see all too regularly on TV. Destruction on a massive scale — be it from floods, droughts, cyclones, tornadoes, wildfires, or tsunamis — is an all too regular occurrence.
Others face manmade forms of destruction. We watch in horror as the ancient and magnificent city of Aleppo is demolished under the bombardment of combating forces. The poor people trapped there know what it’s like to live with the constant threat of annihilation. Others may experience a subtler form of the threat of destruction: a parent with a violent and unpredictable temper, financial ruin, uncontrollable psychiatric disorders, and the like.
One way to read history is as a relentless search to find security from the threat of destruction. Elaborate sacrificial systems were developed to appeal to the gods for safety, echoed in the 1544 Litany that reads
From lightnyng and tempast, from plage, pestilence and famyne, from battayle and murder, & from sodaine death: Good lorde deliver us.
Civilisation itself can be seen as a collective attempt to provide security and to stave off the dissolution that seems to be part of the fabric of reality. Greeks imagined cycles of order and chaos, an idea that the landscape along the Laugavegur seemed to support.
Finally, the image of destruction itself is a powerful one. Those of a conservative bent are often fearful, lamenting the destruction of so much they hold dear, while progressives often live in hope that reforms will provide lasting security from the dark destructive forces that have caused so much oppression. And many an ideological authoritarian has embraced horrific destruction in service to necessary reforms: “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.”
From such reflections, you could imagine that I trekked through a landscape out of Dante’s Inferno. But you would be wrong. The landscape is barren — I went four days without seeing a tree and two without seeing a blade of grass — but it’s also a thing of beauty. The surrounding hills and mountains are a variety of browns, tans, pale yellows, and dark greys, mottled by dense patches of contrasting white snow. Along streams and near hot springs, brightly coloured moss in shades of green and yellow that I didn’t think possible adds an almost Technicolor hue to the landscape. In the distance, vast glaciers that cover nearby volcanoes meld with mist and cloud or reflect the summer sun with countless ice crystals. And even desolate plains of ashen soil are covered by sea campion creating a charming polka-dot effect.
The Laugavegur is simply one of the world’s most stunningly beautiful places.
Everywhere there are signs of colossal destruction and of a landscape regularly scoured by molten lava and fiery pumice — yet all that destruction results not in an ugly wasteland but in a kaleidoscope of vibrant colours. In a sense, beauty redeems the destruction, though admittedly only until the next eruption. The landscape reminds us that destruction and beauty aren’t always in opposition to each other, that even hells can be transformed into Edens — from the desolation on a hill outside Jerusalem springs the beauty of the resurrection:
Splendor that lightens any shade
was darkened by painful grief,
and his light was quite obscured,
in a sepulchre in the flower-garden
The Flower placed there lay and slept,
it soon came to life again and arose,
blessed body and pure reflowering,
and appeared with great brightness. (Iacapone de Todi, “Of the Incarnation of the Divine Word”)
This isn’t some platitudinous attempt to whitewash destruction, to say that a happy ending washes away all tears. But I take it as a small sign of hope that the desolation of destruction can result in breathtaking beauty rather than relentless ruin. Death and destruction don’t have the last word, and beautiful life can appear among the ash heap of human misery like sea campion across a seemingly lifeless field.
Beauty is irrepressible.
More cheerfully, the Laugavegur reminded me what a mystery life really is. The cycle of destruction and beauty in that area — or better, the cycle of destruction leading to beauty — had produced a landscape that my senses could absorb and enjoy. The forces at work to produce both qualities in that environment contain, as it were, a spiritual force as well — it could impact my soul and touch my heart with its sublimity. On my journey I met wonderful people from around the world, who like me had come for no other reason to experience close-at-hand the otherworldly splendour of the place. Indeed, for the few days we were together, we were companions of that splendour, each of us affected by what we saw. That’s a remarkable thought.
We are taught that Christ tore down the gates of Hell. My memorable trek by Hekla, the Icelandic “gateway of Hell” has left me convinced that when he did this, not only were the souls of the faithful released, but so too was beauty. And like those souls, beauty so redeemed can never again be contained.
Mark, marvelous job. Have you seen Werner Herzog’s “Into the Inferno” yet? Its depiction of the power and mystery of volcanoes corresponds well here to the points you make and the picture you paint.